Authors: Natasha Anders
She sighed softly.
“You definitely need a little more practice in the full-disclosure department,” she conceded. He looked confused and realizing that he hadn’t quite understood her, she repeated the statement—to the best of her ability—in sign language. The shadows that were lurking in his eyes cleared up at her words, and she was moved by the hope that bloomed on his face. Yes, he had gone about this the wrong way by foolishly using Kayla as a platform to launch his crazy campaign for reconciliation from, but she had to admit that she was intrigued. More than that, she couldn’t deny that she had been profoundly affected by the vulnerability and shocking lack of self-confidence that he had revealed earlier. His words were hard to ignore and impossible to forget.
“I guess I’m just a sucker for punishment,” she said aloud, and judging by the smile that lit up his face, he could read
without a problem. “I’m going to Pierre’s birthday party on Saturday, and since Alice told me that you’ll be there too, we might as well go together.”
“I’d like that.” His voice was thick with barely restrained excitement, and Bronwyn found that lack of cool quite sweet.
“We can work out the details later.” She smiled.
“I’ll fetch Kayla from Rick and Lisa’s place in the morning and bring her home at the usual time,” he said after an awkward pause.
“Okay . . .”
They stood there for an endless moment leaning toward each other, oblivious to the storm raging all around them. She stared at his mouth, knowing that it was foolish of her to want to kiss him so badly. If nothing else it was premature. Especially since this fledgling relationship that they were trying to build from scratch wasn’t ready for any kind of physical intimacy yet. But Bronwyn ached for it so desperately that she could almost taste him on her lips. His head lowered, hers tilted back, and the world slowed down and . . . stopped. Her senses were so incredibly heightened that she could almost count each individual drop of rain as it hit his face and beaded in his hair and on his long eyelashes. His lips had just
brushed against hers when the wind caught the umbrella and ripped it from his loosened grip, flipping it inside out in the process. They jerked apart abruptly, both flustered and breathing heavily. Reality shoved its way between them and quite literally dumped a shock-load of icy water all over them both. Bronwyn shuddered when she felt the freezing rain dripping down the back of her neck where the collar of her coat gaped a bit.
“You should get inside before you catch a cold,” he urged, ushering her toward the door, and she nodded numbly. She messed up the security code a couple of times before he gently pushed her aside and did it for her with hands that trembled only marginally less than hers. Once he had the door opened, he turned to her, caught her face in his cold, wet hands, and kissed her unceremoniously. There was no finesse to the kiss at all, just raw passion, and Bronwyn was left feeling a little dazed and unsteady on her feet when he released her seconds later.
“Good night,” he said gruffly, jerking the collar of his soaked coat to protect his already wet neck from the rain and turning to walk back to the car. She stood in the doorway and watched as he gestured at Cal to remain in the car before he climbed into the passenger seat and shut the door in one smooth movement. The car remained standing there after that, and she knew that he wouldn’t leave until she stepped inside and shut the door. She waved at the dark figure in the front of the car before stepping back and shutting the door. As she watched the car head back down her driveway, she sighed and for once tried
to dwell on the definite mistakes that she had made tonight.
She really was a fool when it came to her relationship with Bryce. She made the same stupid blunders over and over again, but tonight she had seen something in him that had never been there before. She had seen resolution in his eyes as well as an unfamiliar mix of determination and vulnerability. The man she’d been married to would never have let her catch so much as a glimpse of that susceptibility before. It gave her hope.
“Hi.” Bryce looked almost shy when he brought Kayla home the following evening. The little girl threw herself at Bronwyn and they reconciled like two people who had been separated for months instead of a mere day, showering each other with exaggerated hugs and kisses.
After a long and exuberant greeting, Kayla ran off to her room to check if her toys had missed her too, leaving her parents to stare at each other nervously.
“Hey.” Bronwyn returned his greeting and pushed her hands into the back pockets of her jeans as she rocked back and forth on her heels. It had been raining incessantly since the night before, and Bron stared out at the dismal weather over Bryce’s shoulder. He was still standing on the porch, as was his habit when he dropped Kayla off. He never came inside.
“It’s freezing out there,” Bronwyn observed inanely. “Do you want a hot drink?” His eyes lit up at the invitation and he nodded quickly. He turned and signed his intentions to stay at Cal, who was waiting in the car. The other man nodded and sent back an “okay” sign.
“You’ve done a lot with the place in such a short time,” he said, looking around the homey kitchen as he sat down at the island. He watched as she bustled around the large room, preparing a pot of tea. She sat down across from him a few minutes later with the pot of tea steeping between them.
To keep her hands busy and her anxiousness at bay, she poured his tea, automatically making it the way he liked it.
“Do I make you nervous?” he asked, and her hands stopped their restless movements as she considered his frank question. How like Bryce to cut to the chase.
“No,” she replied. “
don’t but the situation does. Don’t you feel the same way?”
He took a sip of his tea as he considered her question and placed his dainty teacup carefully back into its saucer before replying.
“I’m bloody terrified,” he admitted with a disarming grin. “Terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing. Last night is a perfect example of me screwing things up without meaning to.” The smile faded and his eyes darkened. “Our entire
was an example of me screwing up without meaning to.”
She honestly had no idea what to say in response to that and was relieved when Kayla came running back into the kitchen with Broccoli clutched to her chest. They were both grateful for the interruption and focused their attention on the little girl, who was talking a mile a minute. After a few minutes of fussing over the child, Bronwyn tapped Bryce on his shoulder to get his attention.
“Do you want to stay for dinner?”
“I’d like that very much,” he said.
“We’re ordering pizza,” she warned in case he was expecting some miraculous home-cooked meal after she’d spent all day at school and work.
“No problem.” He whipped out his phone. “I’ll let Cal know that I’ll be staying a while. He and Paul can order takeout for dinner too.”
She nodded as she sent Kayla to the refrigerator for the magnetized pizza menu that she kept low enough for the child to reach.
“I can’t remember the last time I had pizza,” Bryce said, leaning back against the sofa with a contented groan. “That was delicious.”
They were all in the living room, where they had enjoyed an impromptu picnic on the heated carpet. Kayla liked the novelty of eating on the floor and constantly crawled from her mother’s lap to her father’s lap, loving the undivided attention from her doting parents. She was currently sitting on her mother’s lap and Bronwyn could feel the child’s head getting heavier and heavier as she started to doze off. It was getting close to her bedtime.
“Bath time, munchkin,” Bron whispered into her ear.
“No baf, Mummy,” the child protested sleepily.
“Yes bath, Kayla.”
The little girl was grubby and her face was covered in pizza stains. The child pushed herself up and heaved a long-suffering sigh that nearly had Bronwyn in stitches when she heard it.
“Daddy baf I?” she asked, probably knowing that her dad would go easy on her. Bronwyn raised a questioning brow at Bryce, who nodded, his gaze tender as he smiled at the little girl.
“Come on then,” he invited, holding his arms out to her. She toddled into them and he hugged her close for a long moment, shutting his eyes as he inhaled her baby scent. “Love you, sweetheart.”
Bronwyn’s heart turned to mush as she watched them. She turned away and busied herself cleaning up the dinner debris as she struggled to keep the waterworks at bay. She kept her back to them as Kayla led him out of the living room and upstairs to the bathroom. She left them to it for about ten minutes while she fiddled about in the kitchen, before she followed them upstairs.
Bryce was already toweling off a chatty Kayla by the time Bronwyn joined them. He smiled up at her as she entered his field of vision; the look on his face was so warm and unaffected that Bronwyn couldn’t help but smile back.
“That was a fast bath,” she said quietly, and he shrugged.
“I used the hand shower,” he muttered. “She’s asleep on her feet as it is. I thought hosing her down would be more efficient in this case.”
He picked Kayla up and carried her to her girlie bedroom.
“She’s had a busy day,” he explained, dragging a pretty pink nightgown over Kayla’s head. There was a nervous quality to his constant stream of chatter that Bronwyn found endearing. “We went to the South African Museum this morning. She had a blast, loved the animal and bird exhibits. I had to stop by the office after that so she hung out with her day-care buddies for a couple of hours before lunch. You had fun with your friends, didn’t you, Kayla?” She nodded sleepily, and he grinned as he lifted her onto her bed and tucked her in.
They spent a few minutes reading the little girl’s favorite nursery rhymes in tandem, which turned out to be an entertaining and unique experience for all three of them. In fact, Bronwyn and Bryce were enjoying the experience so much that they didn’t notice that Kayla had fallen asleep. It was Bryce who first discerned that Kayla was sleeping, and he shushed Bronwyn, who was really getting into her Mother Goose impression. They crept out of the child’s room and paused at the doorway to watch her sleeping for a few minutes.
“At least I managed to get something right, huh?” Bryce said, his voice brimming with pride, and Bronwyn tilted her head back to meet his eyes.
You got a lot right, Bryce
, she signed, and he grimaced—his eyes dull with disbelief—before turning away and heading back downstairs. She followed him, her gaze fixed on the tense set of his broad shoulders.
“I guess I’ll be going,” he said once she had joined him at the foot of the stairs.
“No,” she shook her head. “We have to have an uninterrupted talk, Bryce. I’m open to the idea of a fresh start because I still love you. I’ve never stopped loving you, even when you were being a total arse. I just didn’t think the situation was healthy for us or for Kayla. I felt like our marriage was doomed because I couldn’t see us growing as a couple or as a family when we still had so many unresolved issues between us. You want another chance? Then we’re going to do this properly. No more secrets.”
ryce watched her slender back as she led the way back into the living room, and swallowed nervously. This was what he had been dreading from practically the moment he’d first met her. He had tried his best to avoid this “talk” and had destroyed his marriage in the process. It was time to take a leap of faith and believe that if she still loved him despite his past cruelty, she could love him enough to overlook even his inherent cravenness. After everything that he had put her through, she more than deserved the truth. He just hoped that he was strong enough to face the consequences if she wanted nothing to do with him afterward.
She stopped walking and he was so wrapped up in his anxiety that he crashed right into her. They both lost their balance and his hands encircled her upper arms to steady her. For a few breathless moments he had her lithe body plastered right up against his, her back to his front, and his body responded with embarrassing predictability. He released her almost immediately and put a decent distance between them, hoping that she hadn’t felt him hardening against the curve of her firm little behind.
he snapped at himself, drawing in a shuddering breath. He moved past her and headed directly to the sofa. He dropped down and folded an ankle over his knee in an uncomfortable attempt to hide his erection from her. The damned thing had no sense of occasion and even the gravitas of the situation wasn’t doing much to tamp things down.
Bronwyn sat down in a chair across from him and stared at him unsmilingly for a few long seconds. That look was more than enough to bring his body back under control. He wasn’t sure how they were supposed to start this conversation and waited to take his cues from her. When she continued to just stare at him, he started to feel uncomfortable and shifted restlessly in his seat. When had she perfected that damned soul-piercing icy stare? It hadn’t been a part of her “irate spouse” repertoire in the past.
“Well,” he said uncomfortably. He was used to silence but he found himself wanting to fill in this particular conversational void with inane words, hoping that it would prompt some kind of response from her. “Well . . .”
She said nothing, her usually expressive face completely devoid of emotion. She wasn’t going to make this easy on him . . . and really, why should she? He had once told her that he couldn’t fix the damage he had wrought—but quite honestly he hadn’t even tried. He could see that now. He hadn’t tried because he hadn’t felt like he’d deserved to try. Well he was done with being crippled by fear. He could fix it—he
fix it. He just had to take the damned leap.
“When we first met . . .” He broke the silence, and Bronwyn made a relieved little sound at the back of her throat. She was grateful that he had ended the interminable silence even though she hadn’t really expected him to start the conversation without some kind of prompt from her. “You were the most enchanting thing that I’d ever seen. You so obviously weren’t coping with that job, you looked harassed and you were so horrified when Pierre and I sat down at one of your tables.”
“You weren’t supposed to notice that,” she interjected dryly and then nearly kicked herself for interrupting him. He laughed softly in response to her words.
“I noticed all right,” he said with a reminiscent little smile. “Your beautiful eyes aren’t very good at hiding your emotions, sweetheart. You were so fascinating. Quite possibly the worst waitress I’ve ever had.” She bit her tongue at that one, but his grin widened at the look on her face. “See? You didn’t like that. Your eyes don’t lie. Pierre couldn’t understand my fascination, and I, in turn, couldn’t understand how he wasn’t seeing the most bewitching creature in the world. Like I said before, I just couldn’t stay away from you. I kept going back, and the more time I spent with you, the more time I
to spend with you. The main reason I proposed—contrary to some of the cruel things I’ve said about it—was because I couldn’t imagine my life without you by my side. You loved me. You had told me so many times and I so
wanted to say it back, but I couldn’t. I was so happy with you but I didn’t think that I
how to love. I wanted you to teach me. I wanted you to make me a better person.”
“I don’t understand,” she shook her head.
“I know, I’m sorry. I’m not doing a very good job of this.” He cleared his throat. “Do you remember the conversation we had that evening after we returned from the aquarium?” She nodded and watched him swallow painfully before throwing back his shoulders like someone preparing himself for battle. He seemed unable to meet her eyes and kept his gaze fixed on the wall behind her.
“You asked me what my first memory was,” he said dully. “What I told you, about my father, when he broke my arm—what he did wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t the first time he’d hurt me, just the first time I remembered it. And I certainly remember every damned time it happened after that.”
“Oh my God . . .”
He didn’t see her words. He still wouldn’t look at her as he continued to speak in a terrifying dead voice. She had unconsciously brought both hands up to her mouth in shock. A part of her had been expecting to hear something like this, but now that he was saying the words, she couldn’t quite believe them.
“After Richard was born,” he never called his brother Richard, but for some reason the formality suited the gravity of the conversation, and Bronwyn didn’t question it. “I had to do everything in my power to deflect the old man’s temper and blows onto me. He never laid one filthy finger on my little brother. I wouldn’t let him. I tried to ensure that Rick remained unaffected by the whole sordid mess. If the mean-spirited bastard had lived longer, I may not have been able to shelter Rick as much, but I was thirteen when he died. Rick was ten and still young enough to genuinely mourn our father. Our mother was just a withdrawn shell of a woman who died a few months before my eighteenth birthday. She died mere months after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She didn’t even try to fight it. It was like she’d just given up on life. She’d checked out mentally and emotionally after my father’s accident anyway.
was the one who raised Rick,
took care of him and made sure that he was fed and properly clothed.”
“But I thought your family was rich,” she murmured dazedly, but because he still seemed unable to meet her eyes, he didn’t see her words and she waved a little to get his attention before signing them.
“Money doesn’t stop an abuser from being abusive. My mother could have obtained the means to take us and leave, but she wasn’t emotionally strong enough to make that decision. He had her completely cowed, and sometimes I hate her memory even more than I do his. She allowed him to hurt me, to hurt her, and if I hadn’t been there to prevent it, she would have allowed him to hurt Rick as well, and I can’t forgive that.” He shuddered at the thought, and his eyes drifted back to the wall. “We were his perfect family. He had beaten us into submission, and yet he
found more reasons to hit my mother and me.
“But like I said, he
got his grubby fists on my brother.” His words were fierce and shaking with outraged pride. “I was a pretty big kid, and the one time I confronted him was just before he died. He went after Rick but I stood up to him, chest to chest, and he backed off.” Bronwyn could picture it, a scared young boy protecting his little brother by bravely facing down a monstrous man, and she had to curl her hands into tight little fists to keep from crying out at the heartbreaking images that were forming in her head.
“He hit me only once more after that and then he died, in a freak yachting accident. God, I hated him and that hate festered in me. The beatings I took, the verbal abuse he heaped on me, it all stayed with me and twisted me inside. My mother was pitiful, she couldn’t love us and she was terrified of her own shadow. Rick, I was his big brother, he was duty-bound to love me. Nobody had ever just loved
. . . until you. But I didn’t have faith in your love. I believed that you wouldn’t feel the same way about me if you knew about how I’d let him hit me and learned about what an absolute coward I was. How could you possibly respect me once you understood how I had crawled to get away from him? How I had begged and pleaded with him not to hurt me, how I had pissed myself in fear and pain—more than once . . .” His voice broke on those last words, and she watched his face contort as he fought to control his emotions.
She was a lost cause. Her face was streaming with tears, and she reached for him but he flinched away and got up to pace to the window. He didn’t want her to touch him, and she wept for the lonely, hurt child he had been and for the emotionally distant and psychologically scarred man that he had become. He was sharing what he felt were his most shameful secrets, and it broke her heart that he thought this was
shame and not that of the pathetic excuse of a man who had fathered him.
“I never felt like I deserved you,” he said, keeping his rigid back to her. “But like I told you before, I just couldn’t stay away from you after that first meeting. I kept making and breaking promises with myself just to spend time with you. When I proposed to you, I thought that I could manage the relationship; that I could keep your love for myself without tainting you, without hurting you. God, what a miserable job I did of that.” He started pacing in front of the window, prowling back and forth like a restless lion and shoving his hands into the pockets of his tailored trousers.
“The night you told me you were pregnant . . .” He stopped moving and grimaced as if the memory pained him as much as it did her. He allowed himself a quick, haunted glance at her before turning away again. “I went off the deep end, Bron. I panicked. I couldn’t be a father, not with my history. What if I hit our baby, what if I started hitting you? My mother always told me that my father never
her until after I was born. She never said as much, but she made me feel like the catalyst to all that violence! What if I was the same? What if our baby’s birth triggered the same reaction in me? What if I hurt you? I c-couldn’t stand that thought, Bron. But then I ended up hurting you anyway, didn’t I? I hurt you with my wild accusations and the irrational and stupid things that I said. Words can be even more painful than fists, I knew that, but I still couldn’t seem to stop myself! I didn’t even
the crap I was saying. And I honestly did think that you would end up hating me for getting you pregnant in the middle of your studies, that you would grow to resent me.” He shook his head and sat down opposite her again.
“This is going to sound like some lame, stupid excuse, but that night, when I told you to leave, I wanted to give myself time to think and to breathe. I
meant for you to leave the house, Bron, just the room. I calmed down almost immediately and realized what a fool I was being. I didn’t know what kind of father I’d be, but I figured that with you by my side I could possibly be okay. I’d taken care of Rick practically from the moment he was born, without once hurting him, and the thought of raising a hand to you is so abhorrent that it sickens me. I stopped thinking of us as a couple and started imagining what it would be like to be a family. The thought of anyone, especially me, hurting you or Kayla is unbearable, but how do I
something won’t set me off someday? How can you ever trust me around her, knowing what you do about me now?”
Bronwyn had her hands pressed over her mouth again as she tried to muffle her sobs, but she was wholly incapable of preventing the tears from flowing down her cheeks. She was a mess. She wanted to go to him but she knew he would not permit it, not until after he had said his piece. Yes, the emotional wound had been lanced, but the pus that had been festering away beneath the surface for so long had to drain before the healing process could begin.
“I’d just made up my mind to tell you everything,” he continued in the same rambling, disorganized way that had characterized his entire monologue up till now. He was bouncing between the past and the present—just stating his thoughts as they popped into his head. “I heard your car starting up and I panicked, I was so sure that you would hurt yourself. I immediately gave chase and had my accident. Thinking I saw you there, I think it was the only way I could cope with having driven you away. I think that my subconscious had to have you betray me, because it gave me an excuse to tell myself that I hated you. I needed that excuse because knowing that I was to blame both for your leaving as well as for my deafness would have sent me even further off the deep end.
“But I never stopped looking for you, Bron, and it wasn’t just about finding the baby. I think that part of me always knew that you would never have done what I accused you of doing, so I had to find you to be sure you were both okay. I was so ashamed of my behavior that I even withheld the news of your pregnancy from Rick and Pierre. What I’d done was completely inexcusable, and both Pierre and Rick would have had no qualms about letting me know that.” He raised his eyes to hers and winced when he saw her tears. His jaw clenched and his hands curled into tight fists before he lowered himself from the sofa to kneel directly in front of her chair. He placed his hands on the armrests, effectively caging her in, but she didn’t feel trapped. Far from it. She felt . . . liberated.